Massachusetts Startup Sells Live Bacteria Products

beneficial microbes are a booming industry

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

AOBiome Therapeutics Inc. has raised $100 million to sell germs as topical products, a Bloomberg article said. The company is currently seeking FDA approval to sell pharmaceutical-grade topical live bacteria. Many microbial species are beneficial to humans.

Selling Bacteria

AOBiome co-founder David Whitlock spent four and a half years living in his car while developing his homegrown bacterial products in a lab, according to the Bloomberg piece. The article also said Whitlock has spent several years coating himself in one of his bacterial concoctions, believing it will benefit his health—a practice that spread to his investors, including one venture capitalist who claims the product has replaced his bathing, basic hygiene rituals, and application of deodorant. AOBiome’s products are even sold in stores, including Whole Foods. How can bacteria benefit humans?

The First Helpful Bacteria

Bacteria called cyanobacteria played one of the biggest roles in the development of life on Earth. “Our atmosphere was created billions of years ago by cyanobacteria, which harnessed the power of sunlight and used it to feed themselves,” said Dr. Bruce E. Fleury, Professor of the Practice in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University. “The chloroplasts in green plants today are actually the descendants of ancient cyanobacteria, engulfed long ago by the ancestors of plants.” According to Dr. Fleury, thanks to the evolutionary advantage these bacteria would have enjoyed, they dominated the Earth for two billion years.

When cyanobacteria created our atmosphere, they set off a chain reaction. With oxygen in the air, eukaryotic cells evolved and developed respiration. “All higher organisms, including microscopic algae and protozoa, are made of eukaryotic cells,” Dr. Fleury said. “The bacterial process of nitrogen fixation uses special proteins called enzymes to fix nitrogen into a form that plants and other organisms can easily use. Bacteria literally created the world we know today.”

Modern Practical Uses for Bacteria

Whitlock’s topical bacteria company believes that his helpful microbes can treat a number of common ailments. Clinical trials are already underway to test them on acne, eczema, rosacea, hay fever, hypertension, and migraines, according to Bloomberg. Using beneficial bacteria as biological control—in other words, a replacement for pesticides—is one of the most common examples.

Bacillus thuringiensis (or Bt) can be used against a wide variety of caterpillars,” Dr. Fleury said. “You just dust the dry bacterial spores and toxins over the infected plants and stand back and watch the results.” Once the caterpillar eats the bacteria, it binds to its intestinal walls and the caterpillar stops eating. Eventually the bacteria releases into the rest of the body and kills it.

A subspecies of this same bacteria has been used to cure river blindness. Dr. Fleury explained that the bite of a black fly releases a nematode worm into the body, which causes an infection that leads to blindness. The Bt subspecies kills black fly larvae and could eventually eradicate river blindness. Still other species have helped save coconut palms—the lifeblood of the South Pacific—from a scourge of Asian rhinoceros beetles. After introducing certain microbes to the rhinoceros beetles, “In Fiji, damage to coconut palms dropped 90% in just four years,” Dr. Fleury said.

The business of probiotics is booming, especially with health giants like Clorox and S.C. Johnson & Son Inc. investing big. In selling germs, David Whitlock may have struck gold.

Dr. Fleury is Professor of the Practice in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University

Dr. Bruce E. Fleury contributed to this article. Dr. Fleury is Professor of the Practice in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University. He earned a B.A. from the University of Rochester in Psychology and General Science, and an M.A. in Library, Media, and Information Studies from the University of South Florida. He went on to earn an M.S. and a Ph.D. in Biology, both from Tulane.